If recent headlines are to be taken at face value, you can skip the apples, carrots or kale: A few cups of popcorn a day will keep the doctor away, or at least give you a fruit-and-vegetable-size serving of antioxidants. That last part is true (and awesome)—a recent University of Scranton study found that popcorn has as much or more of a type of antioxidant called polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. But that doesn’t exactly mean you should “forget your five-a-day” in favor of Orville Redenbacher’s.
Why not? Well, for one thing, fruits and vegetables provide more than just antioxidants. They’re full of vitamins, minerals and all sorts of other good-for-you stuff that’s not present in popcorn.
The way you prepare popcorn makes a difference, too. Plain, air-popped popcorn is an entirely different nutritional beast than popcorn loaded with salt, butter or oil. And it’s not just the increased calories or fat content you have to worry about: The artificial butter flavoring present in many microwave popcorns contains diacetyl and related compounds which can contribute to lung disease.
Even plain microwave popcorn could be bad for you: The bags are lined with chemicals including perfluorooctanioic acid (PFOA), which has been linked to liver, testicular and pancreatic cancer in animals. It may also lead to fertility problems, and prevent vaccinations from working properly in children. During microwaving, PFOA and the other chemicals in bag linings vaporize and migrate into the popcorn (and eventually into our bloodstreams).
Still, the results of the Scranton popcorn study are interesting. Researchers found about 1.5% by weight of air-popped popcorn is made up of polyphenols, mostly packed into the hulls, not the fluffy white part. Polyphenols are the type of antioxidant compound (typically found in fruits, veggies, dark chocolate and red wine) associated with fighting cancer. According to Time, one serving of popped popcorn (about 4 cups, or 33 grams) will give you about 500 mg of polyphenols, which is about half of what the average American consumes daily (primarily from fruit juice, wine, tea, coffee and chocolate).
Because popcorn is 100% whole grain, it’s also a good source of fiber. And one 4-cup serving of plain popcorn has just 120-130 calories.
So: A replacement for fruits and veggies? No. But a good snack choice? Indeed. To keep things as healthy as possible, air-pop popcorn, skip the butter, and go easy on the salt. If the popcorn is too bland for you that way, try adding spices (cinnamon, cayenne pepper, mustard powder) or hot sauce.